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Navigating Over-the-Counter Medications to Manage Pain

If you have visited the emergency department for care and need additional support to manage your pain, you may likely go to your local pharmacy or store looking for relief.

Stocked drugs on the shelf

If you have visited the emergency department for care and need additional support to manage your pain, you may likely go to your local pharmacy or store looking for relief. It can be challenging to make sense of the multiple pain medication options on the shelf. Medications available for purchase without a prescription are called over-the-counter, or OTC, medications.

There are oral and topical OTC options to help relieve a variety of painful conditions. By speaking with your local pharmacist, you can also determine if the cost of some of these medications is covered by your insurance plan. Always talk to your health care provider or pharmacist prior to taking or using any medications.

Understanding oral pain medication options

Oral OTC pain relievers include acetaminophen, such as Tylenol, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications, NSAIDS, such as ibuprofen (Advil and Motrin), naproxen (Aleve) and aspirin. Oral pain relievers are taken by mouth and may come in pill, powder (BC and Goodys) or liquid form. They work to reduce pain by blocking production of certain chemicals involved in pain communication throughout the body. Each medication has specific dosing instructions located on the bottle. It is important to follow these directions on the bottle or as advised by your medical team.

Understanding topical pain medication options

OTC topical pain relievers are available as creams, gels, lotions, patches and sprays. These are applied to the skin to help decrease pain from sore muscles and arthritis by producing a numbing sensation, decreasing inflammation in joints, or blocking pain receptors in the brain by creating a warming and/or cooling sensation. The products include a variety of medications and ingredients such as lidocaine, NSAIDS, and counterirritants, such as capsaicin, menthol and camphor. Common product brand names may include Aspercreme, Biofreeze, Icy Hot, Lidoderm, Salonpas, Tiger Balm and Voltaren.

Tips for safe use of pain medications

  • Do not take more than the recommended dosage.
  • Take only one medication with the same active ingredient at a time (see packaging label).
  • Avoid alcohol when taking these medications.
  • Take NSAIDS with a snack or meal.
  • Combining herbal products, OTC medications and prescription medications may lead to multi-drug interactions and potentially negative side effects. If you are taking other medications, it is important to check with your health care provider or pharmacist before starting new OTC medication.
  • Seek medical attention if any side effects occur.
  • Keep all medications out of reach of children and pets.

Visit the Pain Assessment and Management Initiative, or PAMI, website for more pain management resources to help you navigate your care at home.

At UF Health Jacksonville, we are increasing our use of these holistic approaches. The PAMI team works with emergency medicine specialists and hospital staff to help educate patients about these options, in addition to providing pain toolkits for managing pain at home. A pain coach and educator are available to see patients during normal business hours.

For adult and pediatric patients with worsening and uncontrolled pain, UF Health Jacksonville stands ready to handle emergencies 24/7. Highly qualified, board-certified adult and pediatric emergency physicians are on staff in all our emergency departments.

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Dan Leveton
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